More couch, more movies, less popcorn
Every Sunday morning for almost a year I would wake up early, make myself a little breakfast, hop in an Uber and make the short trip up town to the movie theater.
I understand why people don’t like theaters: the prices are outrageous, the floors are sticky and god help you if there’s a screaming child; but for me they were a second home.
Sure I’d get weird looks when I was the only one in a 9:00 a.m. horror screening and have to brave the vague recognition from the person at the concession stand wondering why I could possibly want popcorn that early in the morning, but it was worth it for that 90 minutes of transportation somewhere else.
Now I don’t know when I’ll set foot in a theater again, and it makes me sad.
At the beginning of the pandemic it felt wrong to even watch movies; like I should have been putting my energy into buying toilet paper and sanitizing my apartment between checking the news for the latest updates. This thing that is such a massive part of who I am just seemed so frivolous.
But in May I re-watched a movie that made it feel okay to not watch the world meltdown on Twitter.
In August I bought a VCR, and I remembered what it was like to comb through the bargain movie bin at Walmart to find a gem that I’d go home and watch until the tape was unplayable.
And in October, even though Brooklyn Horror Fest was cancelled, the teams at Nightstream and Salem Horror Fest put on amazing events that still gave me the feeling of being in a room filled with genre fans all watching things together.
It was a hard year, and if it weren’t for some of the films on this list the only thing I would’ve truly felt this year is fear and uncertainty. So thank you to the writers, actors and directors on this list for sharing your stories with the world. I truly appreciate them all.
Without further ado, a look back on just a few of the 319 movies I’ve watched in 2020. You can see the full list on Letterboxd. I update it when I’m not talking about my ideas for the Hurricane Heist Cinematic Universe on Twitter.
These are what I like to describe as “extremely my shit.”
She Dies Tomorrow (2020)
After I finished watching this I climbed back into bed to contemplate every decision I had made in life up until that point, due in no small part to Kate Lyn Sheil’s portrayal of Amy which feels both natural and eerily close to home. The film meanders but does it in a way that feels real, drifting from scene to scene and across conversations.
She Dies Tomorrow haunted me. It makes the viewer think about how far a thought can travel, no matter how fleeting it is in the moment; and how it can infect the world and the people around you.
What words have I said to someone that felt like a passing conversation? How far have my words been carried from what seemed to me like a passing conversation, and what changes have they made?
It reminds me of the word’s of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park:
“A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.”
Matinee was the film I watched that gave me the catharsis I needed to actually enjoy film again this year.
This two minute monologue at the mid-point of the movie captures the essence of something I’ve struggled to explain for years; and I rewatch it all the time.
It’s special to feel the exact emotion the filmmakers put into a scene and truly connect with it, even if it’s just for a moment. It’s the reason I fell in love with movies in the first place.
Color Out of Space (2019)
I wanted to see this from the very moment I heard it was being worked on, and I wasn’t disappointed. Nic Cage is the perfect level of unhinged, its visually stunning and it has so many subtle character moments that will slip by you on the first viewing.
Richard Stanley is a man blessed by the Old Gods and him teaming up with the crew at SpectreVision is a dream come true.
The Vast of Night (2019)
There’s something about atomic age science fiction stories that I truly love. Maybe it’s because they usually take place in quaint small towns, or because the there was a true fear of the unknown at the time that carried through into the content.
The Vast of Night captures that fear perfectly. As we’re slowly introduced to more people throughout the runtime and the scope of the story expands it becomes clear to the viewer, Fay, and Everett that there is something much bigger and more sinister going on in Cayuga.
From the set design, to the character personalities, to those dreamlike floating shots, The Vast of Night tapped into exactly what I wanted to from a story like this; even more than Super 8 did.
I don’t know how, or when, I even heard about Cherish. All I remember is being mildly surprised when the movie showed up in my mailbox from DVD Netflix, but by the time the credits rolled I wondered how this never ends up on any best 2000’s rom-com lists.
Cherish honestly has one of the most unique storylines I’ve ever seen in a romantic comedy; it’s like a mish-mash of a Saturday afternoon cable thriller and a quirky 2000’s indie boy-meets-girl movie. The pairing of Robin Tunney with Tim Blake Nelson sounds unwieldy but from their first meeting on screen it just works.
The soundtrack is wonderfully varied and captures the tone of the film perfectly, and I’ve probably listened to it 50 times on Spotify since I watched the film.
The new releases
With theaters being closed for the majority of the year, and no Marvel releases, a lot of smaller movies got their time in the sun this year.
January is often where studios send horror movies to die, which is a shame because Underwater deserved so much better than that.
I was already a huge fan of sea monster movies like Deepstar Six and Leviathan, and this movie cemented its place on that pantheon for me.
There were a few pacing issues given the runtime but the supporting effort from Vincent Cassel and the amazing work of Kristen Stewart really take this up a level. Stewart has incredible acting prowess and pretty much everything she’s been in since Personal Shopper has shown it.
Here’s to her one day playing Amanda Ripley in an Alien movie.
You Can’t Kill David Arquette
Professional wrestling is probably one of the few things I’m as passionate about as I am film, meaning that, at the time of writing this, I probably stayed up extremely late on a weeknight and watched Wrestle Kingdom 15 live and hated myself for it later that day.
As such I was vaguely aware of David Arquette’s WCW championship controversy but being decades removed from the insane business decisions made by TNT and the now shuttered World Championship Wrestling, it seemed like just a strange footnote in the company’s demise.
What I did not know what how much that win, Ready to Rumble and wrestling actually meant to Arquette.
After watching this documentary I’m amazed at the resilience and passion he has not only as an actor but as a human being; the title rings true.
Da 5 Bloods
Underneath nearly every line of dialogue throughout Da 5 Bloods there is a lifetime of unspoken trauma that is hard to put into words; and I’m glad Spike Lee chose not to.
Delroy Lindo and everyone in the supporting cast are what elevate the movie to the heights that it reaches, and there are moments where the line blurs between acting and lived experience. Those scenes are where the film truly shines.
It can be marred by strange tonal shifts on occasion, but overall it’s one of Lee’s best efforts.
The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion
This movie kicks so much ass.
The premise sounds like something out of a 90’s anime, childhood trauma causes girl to have amnesia and later discover she has special powers, but the delivery is phenomenal.
Korean horror and thrillers have been really making waves in the last decade or so and Park Hoon-jung manages to combine that with very tight action sequences, great pacing and gorgeous set pieces.
Once this movie kicks off, it does not stop until the very last shot. Highly recommended.
I was not expecting this
Sometimes I just throw on a movie, go to the theater in the before-times, and it turns out to be so much better than I was expecting it to be. If they look interesting give them a shot.
WNUF Halloween Special
I think I’ve watched WNUF Halloween Special half a dozen times since it popped up on Shudder in October; it’s nostalgia done right.
From the camera work, to the 480p look and even the commercials this one will put you right back to watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in your pajamas before switching to cartoons.
Absolutely loved it, and it’s a new Halloween staple.
Gretel and Hansel
Another 2020 release that was left to fend for itself at the beginning of the year.
Dark fairy tales have been a staple in horror for years, and Oz Perkins proves that there is still room to grow in the space; which isn’t a surprise from the director of The Blackcoat’s Daughter.
The film takes the washed out color palette we’re used to with these movies and turns it with masterfully placed visual pops. Pair that with creeping tonal shifts that go from eerie to downright sinister and you’ve got a gem on your hands.
Missing Link (2019)
I wanted to see Missing Link when it released in 2019 but I just never had the chance. This was a style change for Laika, known for their more gothic inspired stop motion, but the moment they announced it would be a story about Bigfoot I was sold.
The cast is incredible, with Hugh Jackman and Zach Galifianakis in the starring roles, and everyone involved brought the story to life. It’s charming, layered and funny in the best way.
I’d love to see more of Sir Lionel Frost and Mr. Link in the future.
Aliens. Artificial intelligence. Military cover-ups. Explosions. Investigative journalism?
Invader has all that and more. While it’s wrapped up in a cheesy Saturday afternoon matinee package, it still manages to hit all of the marks of a great fun movie.
The computer effects are a bit dated, but it’s worth it to watch an alien spaceship combine with military vehicles to turn into a massive robot in an underground bunker.
Pair this with Independence Day for a real treat.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
I’m putting Birds of Prey right next to Shazam as one of DC’s best movie efforts, and I’m crediting that to how it embraces how wacky Gotham city is.
Where BvS and Justice League failed for me, amongst other things, was trying to do comic book things in a mundane world. So when in the opening minutes of the movie Harley blows up a power station in the middle of the city and nobody really bats an eyelid, I knew Cathy Yan was going to give this some color.
All of the cast is great, though the dialogue didn’t always work for me, and the action sequences were top notch.
Also shout out to Ewan McGregor for giving me big Men Who Stare at Goats energy throughout the movie.
Still thinkin’ about it
Every year there are a handful of films that don’t leave my mind for one reason or the other.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Part of me says that I could do it; that I’d be happier if I could just remove the things I don’t want to remember.
But would I still be the person that I am?
I’ve only seen two movies written by Charlie Kaufman, and both of them are going to be on this list. What I’ve learned from his work is that it overwhelmingly deals with the existential question of what it even means to be who we are.
The film itself is phenomenal and now I know why it’s considered one of Jim Carrey’s best performances. I don’t know how I didn’t see this sooner.
If I learned one thing from watching Comet, it’s that it’s okay to suck sometimes.
You may spend days or, in the case of Dell, years trying to trace back why a specific moment in your life went wrong but as Douglas Adams’ Slartibartfast once said “hang the sense of it and keep yourself busy.”
The shots can be a little off kilter at times, and the story itself doesn’t chart any new territory but from the trailer alone I knew this would be a weird train ride that I wouldn’t want to get off of.
Take your favorite romantic indie movie and add a dash of illegal substances and you’ve got Comet.
I said it when I watched The Lodge, and I’ll say it again here: fuck those kids.
Jesse Eisenberg is great but Imogen Poots carries the movie as a surrogate mother to…something that looks like a child, and I found myself wanting to know more and more what was actually happening in the broader world of they inhabit.
The prevailing feeling I had while watching Vivarium was “this is weird.” That feeling got progressively stronger until the last act of the movie when the universe melted and I found myself back on the couch.
Now if you’ll excuse me I need to actively avoid suburbia and go outside to dig a hole.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
This film was very divisive when it was released, and I think I can throw in a guess as to why.
In recent years there’s been this weird push for movies to have very neat and tidy conclusions, and part of that is the fault of superhero movies and the post-credits stinger.
If a movie ends with something that you don’t understand it can feel exclusionary and frustrating, so now you can go to YouTube and see the ending of nearly every film be explained to you by someone who is probably just making it up as they go. So when a movie like I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a puzzle that you need to unwrap, and there isn’t a clear explanation, it gets a a little spicy.
Now that’s not saying I understood it entirely myself, but I can tell you what I gleaned from it.
For me the film was about the anxiety that stems from the unknown and all of the branching possibilities that can happen from a single decision. Every choice matters.
Raiders of the lost format
Like Tim Curry in Congo, I too am frequently on the search for treasures lost to the passage of time that may or may not require me to fight mutant apes to possess; and by that I mean sometimes I have to search really hard on eBay for a movie.
Jushin Thunder Liger: Fist of Thunder
This is an odd piece of professional wrestling history. In fact, the popularity of Jushin Liger is an oddity all together. Originally given his moniker and gimmick as a tie-in to a running anime series of the same name, he went on to become one of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest stars.
So the fact that in the 90s he had a Power Rangers-esque, live-action tokusatsu film created about him isn’t really a surprise.
There was no United States release for obvious reasons, the Japanese DVD was long out of print and the VHS was far out of my price range; but I managed to snag a physical copy from an overseas friend.
You can watch the full movie on YouTube but as there are no English subtitles, it’s best enjoyed for what it is — a fun piece of history.
Necronomicon: Book of the Dead
I purchased my VCR to watch this.
Directed by three masters of their craft and starring the always fantastic Jeffrey Combs, who at one point in the film rips someones head clean in half, this anthology is a great early adaptation of some of Lovecraft’s works.
The creature effects alone made it worth the purchase for me, with each of the three stories having their own unique look while still maintaining the off-putting grittiness of the writing their based on.
This was a little hard to track down because while it had a recent U.K. blu-ray release it was long sold out, and DVD copies were hard to come by. So, like any sane person would do, I ordered it on tape and became slightly worried when I saw it was coming from Fargo.
Life on film
When you find films that take you out of your existence and let you tag along in someone else’s life for 90 minutes or so, hold on to them.
I made a list of the movies that do that for me.
House of Hummingbird
This is the only movie that made me cry in 2020.
House of Hummingbird is a beautiful, biographical piece about the personal and societal pressures of growing up when the world around you is struggling to create an identity of its own.
It’s full of hope, anxiety and discomfort; and the struggles Eunhee faces in her search for just the briefest moment of happiness are universal.
The thing I loved the most about Wonderland outside of the cast of characters is that it didn’t feel like a film.
Though it was set across the pond in London, it felt familiar; like I was just sitting down and catching up with an old friend over lunch, hearing about what’s been happening with the family.
Unfortunately that’s where the movie struggles a bit. Because you feel like you’re watching a friend you want to stop them from making decisions you know will end badly for them, and it feels like a lot of the conflicts in the film could be fixed through a quick conversation.
There’s good casting, and then there’s Frank Whaley and Jennifer Connelly in Career Opportunities. This exudes John Hughes’ signature writing style, and Bryan Gordon got to flex his muscles before going on to direct Curb Your Enthusiasm.
There’s an underpinning of self-loathing for both of our main characters, frustrated with their positions in life and their respective families as they try and navigate that strange space right after high school.
While the spark of romance is there it isn’t overt, and doesn’t feel forced. These are two people who find themselves in a place where it seems like time has stopped, at least for the moment, and they have found someone they can actually talk who isn’t looking to find a solution to their problems. They’re just existing together before riding into the sunset.
Just like Wonderland, The Daytrippers feels familiar to me; almost warm at times.
Again we drop in on a family in the midst of multiple crises at once, with the uniting factor being the love they have for one another; and a more immediate problem than their own underlying issues.
The cast is small but superb, and every line of dialogue feels true to life and their characters. We all know at least one person that will remind you of someone in this film.
Something about the visual presentation and the sound of this movie really takes me back to riding in my grandmother’s hatchback on the way to the grocery store, arguing about some nonsense with my cousins.
I mentioned at the start of this the great work the teams at both Salem Horror Fest, Brooklyn Horror Fest and Nighstream did in turning their film festivals virtual this year and so I wanted to touch on a few things that are seeing a wider release in 2021.
Come True (2020)
Come True combines the sleep disorder subgenre of horror with a synthwave, outrun aesthetic in a way I didn’t know that I needed. It’s been a long time since a movie ticked so many boxes for me, and I found myself looking for more answers. I wish I could have watched it a second time.
Boys from County Hell
A crew of hardy road workers, led by a bickering Father and Son, must survive the night when they accidentally awaken an ancient Irish vampire.
Boys from County Hell is gorgeous and an incredibly inventive take on the vampire mythos that is action packed and scary as hell when it wants to be.I desperately wish there was more.
Bleed with Me (2020)
At an isolated winter cabin, a young woman begins to suspect that her best friend is stealing her blood.
Unsettling is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Bleed with Me. It’s a cold, concise, slow burn of a movie that builds tension with increasing paranoia from the very first moments of the film.
THRESHOLD follows a sister, claiming to be cursed, as she persuades her brother to embark on a cross country road trip to break her spell.
Just like Bleed with Me, Threshold uses it’s small cast extremely effectively and manages to throw in some very beautiful shots along the way. The buildup to the final scene of the film is great; it comes so out of left field but man does it pack a punch.
Bumps in the night
Two thirds of the movies watched this year were horror movies. It’s still by far my favorite genre, whether I’m watching something legitimately scary, watching a serial killer dressed like Santa Claus decimate a small town, or subjecting myself to the Deep Blue Sea sequels.
The Lodge (2019)
The Lodge is a cold, calculated slow descent into madness that kept me on the edge throughout the entire runtime. It gave me the same feeling I have watching classic Hammer Horror films, and the score really drives that home.
The use of color was perfect and when you combine that with the razor-sharp direction, you get an incredibly bleak story pulls zero punches. Loved it.
Also…fuck those kids.
Luz is a gem of a movie. I had tickets to see it during its theatrical run last year but never managed to use them, which sucks because I would’ve been raving about it. So, I made sure that it was the very first movie I watched in 2020.
Everything from the set design to the subtle visual effects and use of film grain, give the movie an alien feeling. Honestly, it kind of unsettling but in the best way possible.
Pair this with Prince of Darkness, Possession (1981) or Beyond the Black Rainbow and you’ll have a great time.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Heartfelt, offbeat and creepy may not seem like they go together at all, but I don’t know how else to describe the energy that exudes from the Wolf of Snow Hollow.
The dual stories of a man caught between his family, his job and living up to his father’s legacy; and a seemingly supernatural serial killer decimating a small Alaskan town are interwoven masterfully.
The Clovehitch Killer
I had a friend once describe to me what it was like growing up in rural, religious small town and when I told her about this movie she said none of it surprised her at all.
There’s a framing shot about an hour into the film that I can’t get out of my mind. It’s both completely innocuous and sinister at the same time.
That truly describes the entire feeling I had throughout the runtime.
So many bad decisions are made, but because of the community mindset things are just handwaved away; and that is the most terrifying bit.
I just wish these were better.
The New Mutants (2020)
I am so mad about how this movie was treated by Disney and by Fox.
All of the pieces are here for this to be a mutant version of Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. You can even see glimpses of character interactions that would have made the audience more invested in the film, but you also see how it was clearly hacked to pieces on the cutting room floor into a “serviceable” mess.
It’s not a bad film and at some points it reaches soaring heights, but then it gets slapped back down to the ground unceremoniously.
It’s sad, and incredibly frustrating.
I blame Bryan Singer.
Before I talk about Monstrous I want to briefly mention another film: What Keeps You Alive. In that a sociopathic lesbian is a serial killer unbeknownst to her wife until things go wrong, then the movie goes from zero to 100 real quick; I thoroughly enjoyed it.
So when I heard about Monstrous, which has a similar premise with the addition of Bigfoot, I was all about it.
While I did enjoy the movie, it just felt like there was something lacking; I needed more tension, more build-up to the reveals and maybe a tinge less Bigfoot.
I really enjoyed a lot of Archenemy, but at the same time I got Hancock vibes from it.
Joe Manganiello’s Max Fist is an incredible character, and I’d greenlight an origin if I had the money, but the movie suffers from the fact that he isn’t the main character until the second half of the film.
Let’s not talk about the ending.